By Malena Castaldi
MONTEVIDEO (Reuters) - South American leaders planned to send a tough message to Washington on Friday over allegations of U.S. spying in the region and to defend their right to offer asylum to fugitive former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden.
Capping two weeks of strained North-South relations over the Snowden saga, presidents from the Mercosur bloc of nations are set to meet in Montevideo, Uruguay, where the dispute with the United States will be high on the agenda.
"We've discussed the issue of spying on the continent and issues related to the right of asylum," Uruguayan Foreign Minister Luis Almagro told reporters after agenda-setting talks in Montevideo on Thursday.
The Mercosur bloc comprises Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.
Washington is demanding Snowden's arrest on espionage charges after he divulged extensive, secret U.S. surveillance programs. Stuck in the transit area of Moscow's international airport since late June, he has been seeking asylum in various countries.
Leftist governments in Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua have offered to take him in, defying U.S. President Barack Obama's warning that any nation that helps Snowden would face serious consequences. Snowden has not officially accepted any of the asylum offers.
"We believe that the international community must demand the right of all citizens of the world to request asylum: diplomatic, political, humanitarian, whatever you want to call it," said Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua.
"Venezuela is going to exercise its right under international law regardless of threats, regardless of retaliation, regardless of consequences," he said.
Leaders in the region are fuming over new allegations that the U.S. National Security Agency targeted most Latin American countries with spying programs that monitored Internet traffic, especially in Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil and Mexico.
Colombia, Washington's closest military ally in Latin America, joined the chorus of governments seeking answers after the allegations were published by a leading Brazilian newspaper on Tuesday.
Setting the stage for Friday's Mercosur session, South American leaders rallied in support of Bolivian President Evo Morales last week after he was denied access to the airspace of several European countries on suspicion the 30-year-old Snowden might be on board.
Leftist leaders from Ecuador to Argentina denounced the incident at a meeting last week, saying it showed a "neo-colonialist" attitude on the part of Europe and the United States.
"These are issues that will show Mercosur's unity," Argentine Foreign Minister Hector Timerman said as he got ready to fly to Montevideo.
Bolivia is an associate member of Mercosur and Morales is scheduled to attend Friday's meeting.
(Additional reporting by Louise Egan, Writing by Hugh Bronstein; Editing by Peter Cooney)